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The Joy Of Storytelling At Family Meals

The Joy of Storytelling at Family Meals

I had the honor of interviewing Nancy Mellon, MA, a teacher, artist, and expressive psychotherapist who specializes in storytelling as a healing art. She is the author of Body Eloquence, Storytelling & the Art of the Imagination, Storytelling with Children, and The Knottles. Through her courses, workshops and talks, Nancy teaches adults how to use storytelling to build greater awareness and consciousness. Here, we learn from Nancy how to help our children to create connections between their inner and outer worlds, and develop creative and pleasurable perspectives on their daily food.

Nancy Mellon reminds us that we all have a delightfully playful and wise storyteller within us. “Adults can sit down at the table with the intention of being a Storymother or Storyfather with the children,” Nancy says. “That intention opens up the heart, and the listening of the whole digestive system. It embraces all the directions around us, rather than just the ‘going-forward head’ that gets so engaged these days during our usual daily lives.” For most of us, dinner conversation turns to whatever has been going on that day or that week, or what’s coming up on the calendar this weekend. Nancy points out that creating stories together engages us in a creative experience, not merely a rehashing of current happenings. “Storytelling, just like prayers and singing, warms the communication network around the table, helping us to feel that the whole person is invited to the table, not just the good student or just the office worker or just the mom who’s driving everybody through the endless roads…” This sounds wonderful, but how do you actually open to the joy of storytelling in the midst of daily meals?

CONNECTING WITH OUR FOOD

“It’s easy to start with the food itself,” Nancy says, “because everything on the plate has a story. With younger children Mom or Dad might begin, ‘Farmer Jones was very busy harvesting today…’ Seeing the wonder of each thing that’s being eaten, and tracing back its story can be a delightful process.” Nancy suggests taking cues from the shapes and colors on the plate. “‘What power does an asparagus give us? I wonder how these peas began their journey to our plates?’ Or, ‘Once upon a time, some little peas were growing up together, dreaming to help you roll around and have fun in the green world…’ ” Nancy encourages us to share “the adventure stories of the peas that are on the plate right now, the asparagus, these potatoes,” and as you share those stories, the children and their wonderful imaginations and the ideas and knowledge they gather will come forth to engage in and develop the story. “We’re in the story to feed the soul of wonder and real connection. Facts can be part of a story you tell with the children – kids have such a need to know that the milk doesn’t come from the plastic container, and the pea doesn’t come from the freezer – but it’s not‘ let’s get the encyclopedia and real all about peas,’ feeding the head, but not the feeling of real connection with the peas. And it’s just so fascinating to be aware that everything is on a great adventure, everything and everyone, and we’re all in this together.”

Storytelling can also be an effective way for children to discover a true picture of what happens to them when they eat junk food – how it affects their energy level, their mood. “You can have a lot of fun with that,” Nancy says, “especially with tweens:  ‘Ouch, shouted all the teeth,’ … ‘Oh look what I have to deal with now, complained the stomach’…” Parents can encourage kids to imagine the “story” behind junk food. “With a little non-judgmental help, children can build a clear picture of what happens to them when they eat those things,” Nancy says. Being conscious of why healthy foods are preferable to junk, kids can then make better choices on their own. “They’re feeding in the communal way when they’re at home, and feeding in the communal way when they’re at school or with their friends. I think it really takes a lot of awareness on the part of parents to make sure their children are receiving the family food in peace, so there’s a sense of peace around food in general. Then children are more likely to perceive food clearly and to make wise choices anywhere.”

CONNECTING WITH EACH OTHER

Besides imagining how people in other cultures eat, mom and dad can tell stories of what dinner was like when they were growing up, providing connection to the family’s former tastes and habits. Nancy suggests mining your own memories: “What people used to have back then, what and how they used to eat in your family, how the table was set, who was there… That can lead to, ‘Well, when your great-grandmother was a little girl, they ate potatoes almost every day in the winter with Brussels sprouts and didn’t have anything else.’ It’s an awesome bounty that children have to deal with these days – all the choices, all the variety – they don’t understand that most children would often bring the same thing to school every day and that was it, and that there were no strawberries in February – and nobody even thought of them. Those perspectives from older, past generations is good conversation at the table.”

Another wonderful way to foster connection around the meal is to play “The Thorn and the Rose” (see next page). A shared meal together around the table, at the end of the day, is the perfect time for this storytelling moment – a time when each person expresses today’s concerns as well as joys, tomorrow’s fears as well as exciting anticipations. “If you have dessert, you might say, ‘Well, what was the sweetest thing to happen to you today? What is the sourest thing that happened today?’ While they’re having the bitter or salty, you might ask: ‘Did anything make you want to cry today?’ They can enjoy the sweetness even more, with that sense of the contrast,” Nancy says, “getting in touch with the different flavors of life.”

SIMPLE STORYTELLING

Does it seem difficult to imagine storytelling at the dinner table, when you most often spend your meal breaking up fights or commanding the kids to eat their greens? Storytelling is an effective way to encourage better behavior at the table by engaging everyone’s imaginations in a shared, creative experience; it also gives parents an opportunity to role-model good listening skills.

“When parents have their listening really open from the heart, children feel that; it’s palpable.
In a resonant field of heartfelt listening they’re less often jumping in on each other to interrupt. Little children interrupt because their relationship to their impulses is still developing, but the storyteller might say, ‘Let’s hear what she said again. Let’s hear everything she had to say,’ and then tie that request back to stories already shared: ‘Supposing a pea was growing and someone just jumped in and said, Well, never mind, put your attention over here, and the poor pea couldn’t become what it is – so round and green and beautiful… Let’s listen well with no interruptions so whatever anybody has to say gets to be as round as a pea’ – painting a picture of that sort. It gives children something of the picture of the wholeness of the pea, or the roundness of the plate, helping us all to remember that what somebody says gets to round itself out before the next person speaks.”

Some parents have expressed to Nancy that storytelling is something that seems difficult – another task at the end of an already long day. “Far from being another responsibility, the process of being the Storyteller and bringing attention to the way things are doesn’t make one tired,” she says. “It is just as refreshing for parents as it is for children. Storytelling is about breathing deeply, acknowledging the truth of what we are receiving, and speaking about it with real respect and joy and wonder. But if it’s approached as a worrisome task, then it will be just that. Parents are often pleasantly surprised that it was much easier and more pleasant than they thought, and exclaim, ‘Who would want to miss out on this much fun!’”

Embrace the gifts storytelling brings.

Think of three stories about food that you want to pass on to your kids: dinners at your grandmother’s house, picking berries with your brother on a family trip, the cake you made from scratch (and ruined!) … whatever you remember from your youth about cooking, eating, dining, experimenting with food or sharing it with others is fodder for connecting with your kids at the evening meal, no matter their ages. Write some notes about your memories, or type them into your computer. Once you write them down, you will be better able to recall them when you want to share them with your kids.

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